Napoleon said: “Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world.”

China is awake.

Peace in the South China Sea is threatened by China’s unprecedented demand to rule what have always been international waters. It is making its demand trenchant by building artificial islands where none has ever been since the breakup of the Pangea land mass into today’s continents.

Recently, U.S. Navy ships sailed past one of these intrusions into settled law and practice to challenge China’s ambitions.

And when President Obama recently met with the leaders of Southeast Asia and with China’s president, one of the issues was China’s claim to dominance over the South China Sea.

Claims to territory have a long history in human affairs as the prelude to war. China’s unilateral demands are a step along that well-established road to tragedy.

China’s demands for control of the South China Sea rest on a new assertion of national honor. The message being purveyed by the Chinese Communist Party is that the Americans in particular are imposing humiliation on China, a dishonor that must be resisted by patriotic citizens.

I recently participated in a conference in Beijing and experienced this turn of feeling about America and its roots in a new Communist Party line raising emotional stakes against foreigners. One speaker spoke of China as the world’s “leading nation.”

More upsetting, though, was a commercial movie I watched on Delta Air Lines during my flight to Asia.

It was a Kung-Fu movie called “The Master.” But, under the surface, if you know Chinese history, you realized immediately it was party propaganda.

Two incidents put the party’s case for resistance to foreigners. One was a fictitious boxing match around 1840 where our handsome, decent and stoic Chinese Kung-Fu master quickly bested a Japanese samurai, an American fisticuff champion and a Russian “bear” of a bully.

The political takeaway was not hard to get: China will be victorious over its rivals.

The second incident was more subtle but very Chinese in its cultural power. The mother of our master — about to be executed as her son was refusing to serve the evil Qing Dynasty that had sold out to the foreigners bringing opium into China — said “son, do what you have to do. A son who is loyal to his country is filial to his mother.”

She then threw her neck against the executioner’s sword and died.

The message to Chinese moviegoers: A good Confucian fights for his country.

The intent behind the message is to prepare the Chinese people for war.

In Singapore, before traveling to the conference in Beijing, I called on an old friend, a globally respected Singaporean diplomat who has good ties to the Chinese leadership. He told me with a bit of disbelief of his recent experience in Beijing, giving me a preview of what I would experience there on my own several days later.

He had been lectured to by the Chinese. They were anti-American and dismissive of the Southeast Asian countries as nuisances who should better know their places on the margins of events. Feeling put upon, he challenged his hosts, suggesting that to build artificial islands and use them to claim sovereign powers was against international law. They rebuked him without grace.

Discussions in the conference I later attended were a surprising and very sad throwback to a previous era of enforced party thought leadership. None of the professors wanted to speak freely about what they really thought. There was indirection around every topic. No one spoke frankly, though the topics were relatively noncontroversial.

But I had breathed such atmospheres before, in other Asian authoritarian settings: One never knows what will later become controversial in the minds of party leaders, so it is best to say nothing whatsoever that could possibly come back to haunt you when the search starts for anti-party troublemakers and nonbelievers.

I have been going to China since 1984 to engage with Chinese professors and intellectuals. This was the first time I felt suffocated in a public atmosphere of fear and unwillingness to challenge party rationalizations in any way.

China’s politics are regressing. Freedoms of thought and speech are not what they have been. Trouble is brewing.

Two insiders told me privately that this summer’s fall in China’s stock market prices had been intentionally engineered. This has not yet made the news outside of China.

There is, apparently, a bitter and relentless power struggle going on between the faction of the new president, Xi Jinping, and the faction of the old president, Jiang Zemin. The Xi faction is moving to remove from power members of the Jiang faction.

So the Jiang faction responded by using cash balances of the state enterprises they controlled to short the stock market and pop the bubble of rising prices to puncture Xi’s reputation for successful promotion of China’s economic growth.

Thus, Xi is under intense political pressure to shore up his support and his power. One tactic now being put to use is to promote himself as the defender of China’s honor, preventing humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. Taking over the South China Sea and pushing the Americans into strategic retreat sadly meet his immediate personal needs to be accepted as China’s “big boss.”

 

Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.